Profile: Finale Editworks

Advertorial, 1998

finaleWhen touring the Finale Editworks 9,500 square-foot facility near downtown Vancouver, technophiles thrill to the sight of room after room packed with hi-tech gadgets, screens, computers, control panels and thingamajigs galore laid out in a comfortable, elegant setting.

More impressive, however is running into a Los Angeles producer who, unbidden, stops to gush about the Finale editors. ‘Says they’re the best. That, when she can’t work in Vancouver, she flies her Finale editors down to L.A. ‘Won’t work with anyone else.

High praise. And well-earned. Since founding Finale in 1988, Don Thompson (formerly of CTV, U.TV and The Eyes), and his partner Dale Johannesen, have laboured to make Finale the best at what it does. Which is providing complete post-production services, including off-line editorial, on-line editing, and special effects design and duplication for television commercials, broadcast programs and videos.

At Finale, the editing process begins, obviously, when the client brings in what has been shot. The editors do a rough off-line edit, the client approves it, then they move to the high-resolution on-line edit, where colour corrections are made and sound and special effects are added. During the off-line phase, clients may have their own editors and creative staff involved—this is the decision-making process, where the piece is built from its original elements. But, once the project moves to the high-tech, creative on-line phase, the Finale editors take over. And it is this process that sets Finale apart.

“There’s no ‘right’ editing method and, obviously, the best editors are the ones whose work you don’t see,” says Thompson. “But editors are definitely crucial to the creative process, and add elements that writers never envision. There are many styles of editing, and there are big differences in how different editors approach a project—some are more comfortable with videos, some with commercials. There’s also a character factor, where certain editors are off the wall, others are more conservative. Each client is looking for something different—sometimes complementary talent, sometimes talents opposite to their own. The trick is to match them up, and we’re good at that.”

That doesn’t mean that clients can’t be involved at the on-line stage. “The creative process often depends on the synergy between our editors and clients, so producers can work from our office and supervise at all stages of the production. That’s a real comfort to those clients who have a specific direction and want to remain very much involved. Other clients, though, let the editors work their craft, and only come in to oversee the finishing touches.

“When producers hire an editing facility, they should want its creativity. That’s what they’re paying for and that’s how they’ll get the most out of the process. Some editors are just technical types, but most are very creative. Here, we have a depth of editors with different talents and different approaches, and that’s why clients come to us. They know they can find a varied set of talents and that our post managers can keep their projects on track.”

The majority of Finale’s clients are independent documentary makers, video producers and advertising agencies; about 70% from Western Canada, the rest from Toronto and Los Angeles. Most business comes through word of mouth, but the company has benefited from an inventive advertising campaign (care of the erstwhile Moreland & Associates) and more effort has been put into marketing.

“We needed to re-position the company because we were having trouble breaking through some mental barriers in the advertising world, regarding what Finale was and what kind of clients it could service,” continues Thompson. “We don’t do film transfers and, in Vancouver, the perception was that, unless you do transfers, you can’t tackle the large national campaigns. The agencies had looked to us when they were in a bind and we always delivered on time, on budget and with a lot of creativity. Clients become comfortable with their regular suppliers, naturally. But sometimes, you have to look for fresh talent and ideas, and we’ve done some very successful agency work. We’ve been effective at raising awareness and showing that we can be creative in a technology-driven business.”

Technology is, of course, a huge part of Finale’s business, but Thompson says he has found a balance. “We’re under constant pressure to have the latest toys, but we’ve been able to combine the old and the new in a way which works well for us and our clients. Every three years, we go through a major technological up-grade, and we’re always looking for new things to enhance our capabilities. One big advantage here is that we train our clients as well as our staff, so clients understand our equipment’s capabilities and get the most out of it.”

Sound editing has lately become an increasingly important part of Finale’s services, largely due to client demand, and it recently installed a new audio studio. And Finale’s sister company, Image Engine Design & FX, has evolved from an in-house graphics department into a successful stand-alone boutique. (Finale also owns Shooters Production Services.) Thompson says that the clients now know that Finale can handle all their needs.

“It’s important that all clients, particularly out-of-town clients, have that confidence—in Finale or its competition. But what sets facilities apart is talent, and we have some of the most talent editors in the business. In post-production in Vancouver, there’s a lot of talent, period. And that’s what’s allowed Vancouver to attract the calibre of the shows that are produced here.”

Television & Another Summer of Discontent

Blitz Magazine, July 2003

tv5 

It’s a hot, humid night—too hot to read, and the dog won’t be walked. So, there’s TV.

The Miss Universe Pageant. This is so redundant and so insulting, it doesn’t bear discussion. But wait! Miss Canada is one of the finalists. Hoping for a Canadian victory, I keep watching. Donald Trump, owner of this ultra-passé travesty, is hunched in the front row, wearing his signature pout and cheap dye job. The co-host asks the Soap Star judge how he’s doing. The dough-head responds: “Well I’m sure glad they narrowed down the selection for us!” Oh? Who narrowed down the selection? Could it be that the judges have nothing to do with choosing the winner? That the whole thing is fixed in advance? Surely not!

My heart sinks as Miss Canada confesses to having a university degree (one of her co-finalists, Miss Montenegro, is a malnourished 18 year-old whose Interest is cats—she loves cats.) Then, Oh no! Miss Canada tells the interviewer that she’s “not into the hair-and-make-up thing”! Wrong thing to say in this crowd, baby! Bye bye!

CSI Miami. While it’s flattering to see a hit US show that’s a direct knock-off of a Canadian show (Da Vinci’s Inquest—inspired by the current Vancouver mayor’s career as a coroner and RCMP officer). Both CSI franchises are increasingly silly and far-fetched. But they’re educational. I’ve learned that, in this version of real life, er death, the police are secondary and don’t do any crime-solving. I’ve learned that, in Las Vegas and Miami, CSIs only work on high-glamour murders. I’ve learned that CSIs can have no personality whatsoever. And that, if you’re a woman who wants to be a CSI in Miami, you have to have implants, wear the tightest clothing you can find, be willing to spend hours on your hair, and wear more make-up than the local Mary Kay rep.

The unfortunate Miss Canada has, therefore, lost out on another career choice.

Click. Commercials. BC Gas has changed its name; the ad publicizing this has two grammatical errors. Tim Horton’s has the audacity to run, for a second season, what was already a seriously stupid commercial, wherein a young couple goes gaga over a strawberry tart that looks like a bloody botulism/polypropylene mutation. Then a ray of light: the VISA ‘Sing For Your Supper’ spot. Brilliant.

Next up, something called For Love or Money. There’s a group of women, all freshly botoxed and sun-bedded with bleached teeth and voices like chain-smoking Valley girls. (This awful voice seems to be the new American Girl sound—and it’s migrating north at a frightening pace.) And there’s a guy who thinks he’s supposed to fall in love with one of these creatures. He doesn’t now that they’re in it for a million dollars. At the end of the show, he has to dump some of the girls, keep others. No one on the show is in the least embarrassed by participating in this inanity. I sure am. Click.

Dog Eat Dog. Survivor.  American Junior. American Senior. American Lampshade. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the craze for tacky competition shows as degrading to participants and viewers. It’s human humiliation as entertainment. Intellectual battery as commerce. Click.

tv6Wonder of wonders, a bad Volkswagen commercial. A couple is worried about getting a goldfish home. The fish is in a large, water-filled tank. Don’t goldfish like large, water-filled tanks? And the driver needs directions to get to her own home. Then, Egads! The Dreaded Swiffer commercial. The voice they hired has managed to transmit her vocal sounds directly through her nose. Someone should ram the broom down her throat and give it a good swiff. Click.

Ah, another SARS press briefing. This is good—I’m not hearing enough about SARS. I’m wishing that someone would start a SARS Channel, so the whole world can get All SARS All The Time. A reporter from the Toronto Star asks a question. She uses the non-word ‘irregardless’. Ugh.

The Larry King Show. The usual suspects are busily trying Scott Peterson, discussing evidence, dissecting, speculating. I speculate that the only untainted jury candidates available will be those who find it intellectually taxing to watch CNN. I hear OJ chuckling.

Law & Order. Bravo! wants the hour to run to 50 minutes, and it wants to be able to pack in as many commercials as it possibly can. So it’s editing each show to fit its parameters. I know this because I’ve seen each episode so many times that I often know what characters are going to say before they say it. On Bravo!, what those characters once said is just plain missing—along with those pesky clues, confessions and revelations.

In addition, the Bravo! folks feel the need to insert a viewer warning after every single commercial break: “This program contains scenes of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.’ Although, I guess this is a good thing, given that there are 4 year-olds all across Canada fighting to stay awake at 8:30 p.m. to watch the hilarious antics of Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe. Click.

The Mercedes Ice Cream commercial. Genius. But wait! It’s the dreaded Herbal Essence Shampoo ad! I wonder if the people behind these ads realize what kind of reaction the profoundly idiotic ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! is met with. If they know how many women are thinking ‘No! No! No! I’ll never use that product because I don’t want to become a bimbo!’ The bit was funny in When Harry Met Sally; that’s where it should stay.

Back to the CBC. More on mad cow. One sick cow and it’s the Story of the Century. A farmer finally complains about the media saturation. He should. All the coverage of slaughter, the depictions of how these animals are treated, and the facts about testing, about what cattle eat, what we end up eating…it’s back to Vegetarianville for me.

NYPD Blue. Why is this stale old show still on the air? Still with the bad lighting, the cheesy set design and the jerky camera. Does anyone know anyone who actually speaks the way these characters do? Don’t homicide detectives ever laugh? Click.

In an interview, Katie Couric asks Laci Peterson’s mother if public support has ‘booeed’ her spirits. How much does Couric earn? Maybe they need to pay her more.

Commercial: Nike is telling inner-city kids that its shoes are cool—but that it’s also cool to own snarling Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and keep them tied to fences. I’d like to have a word with the creative director.

tv1I’m sorry to keep going back to the 9/11 thing, but I always look for the possible benefits of bad situations. I remember, just after the awful event, seeing Dubya at a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs—Lansing, Spielberg et al. At first, I found this chilling, because I figured it meant lots of propaganda. I was right—we soon saw Band of Brothers, among many other shows with the theme of Military Hero! and American Values!

But then I thought that the disaster could produce another result—that it might force the entertainment industry to get its act together. That the networks would insist on it. That viewers, and advertisers, would insist on it. I thought that it would make producers realize that there’s a huge responsibility involved in communicating with millions of people. That their audience is filled with different types of people with myriad experiences and stories and goals and fabulously rich histories. I thought that producers might get creative, and make shows that would inform, entertain and educate—in an intelligent fashion. So people could learn, laugh, appreciate other people and maybe be forced to think.

You’re thinking: “You were wrong, Dorothy.”

I certainly was. What we got was John Ritter in a tizzy over the fact that his teen-age daughter is growing up (gasp here), a mini-series on Adolph Hitler, and a guy on Will & Grace telling someone not to put his penis up someone’s bum.

I’m not asking for a steady diet of BBC-quality historical drama all the time, but come on.

tv4Yes, the lazy hazy days of summer. But is everyone on vacation at the same time? No. Is everybody partying every night of week? No. So why, I wonder for the millionth time, do network executives schedule fill the summer season with nothing but fetid, putrid, drivel-dripping crap? If it’s because they assume that no one’s watching, then shouldn’t advertisers make the same assumption and pull their ads?

I tune out altogether. I go to the bookcase, close my eyes and extract the first book I touch. It’s Ulysses. Yikes. Well, why not. I certainly can’t watch television.

On the Post-9/11 Plague

Blitz Magazine, November 2001

On September 9th, it was time to start another book. I randomly plucked one from a shelf and began to read. The book was The Plague, by Albert Camus. By September 12th, I realized that the choice was an eerie coincidence.

plagueThe Plague, published in 1947, is the story of a city visited by the bubonic plague, and of the psychological and functional changes forced upon the city’s people. However, the plague is only a symbol. What Camus was really writing about was the German occupation of France.

We are now the plague-stricken, with our affliction being terrorism and everything that created it. The parallels between the novel and what we are now experiencing, and what we will experience, are too numerous to cite—you’ll have to read the book. But in it, Camus touches on the media and writes about how, when journalists become bored with reporting the death tolls, and on the frustratingly-slow recovery process, they turn their society’s disaster into morbid entertainment. Their news becomes limited to the information supplied by the Prefect. In the time of crisis, they lose all credibility.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York, I’ve been sickened by the media/Hollywood treatment of it. The image of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center just had to be shown again. And again. And again. And again. The major news organizations used it as a logo. There were/are the Creative Writing 101 titles: ‘America Under Attack’, ‘Helping America Heal’, ‘America’s New War’. The White House joined in, with Dubya’s speechwriter making him say things like ‘Dead or Alive!’ then helped with the branding of it all with the incredibly ridiculous ‘Operation Infinite Justice’. Dateline is still busy wringing every last melodramatic ounce from the disaster. Advertisers are running promotions around it: ‘Buy an RV and we’ll give $100 to the New York relief effort!’, and ‘Buy a 2002 SUV and help keep America moving!’

Other truly nauseating examples were the special editions of the magazines. Those from Time and Newsweek were little more than collections of photographs taken on and around that horrible day. As what? Keepsakes for scrapbooks and photo albums, to be pasted in along with the baby pictures? On September 16th, Fox scheduled Independence Day for its Sunday night movie. On the already moronic Entertainment Tonight, the story from the odious Mary Hart was how ‘The Stars’ managed to get home from the Toronto Film Festival. Then she interviewed a producer, who unwittingly summed up all that’s wrong with Hollywood when he said: “This kind of thing is entertainment as long as it’s fantasy. Once it happens, it ceases to be entertainment.”

plague1In The Plague, the citizens struggle to live their lives normally, in denial, helplessly going through the motions, obedient to every edict from the Prefect. Dissenters are quashed.

The novel’s main characters are heroes; doctors and volunteers, who spend their days lancing the buboes on the bodies of the stricken, in hopes that release and disposal of the noxious fluid will help bring an end to the pernicious plague.

There is only one character who self-destructs—the profiteer. This man makes a lot of money by appealing to the base instincts that arise in people during times of crisis; once the plague has run its course, he loses his mind, his friends and his freedom.

Camus was writing about World War II, and we know that this type of situation, and its effects on any society, has been the same for centuries. But the nature of media has changed; its scope and capabilities have changed. One would hope that, with all this sophistication, the behaviour of those who work in all forms of media would change for the better. I’m not seeing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Demand for Wit in Advertising

badadsBlitz Magazine, January 2000

You spend 10 minutes at a party listening to a guy describe his passion for actuarial tables. By the time he’s finished, you’ve forgotten his name and have developed an aversion to all things actuarial.

On TV, you see a loud, obnoxious commercial. I can’t cite an example because I would have immediately developed an aversion to its product and forgotten it.

When communicating a message, the most effective method of having it remembered is by delivering it with Wit. Intelligent Humour.

We remember the Special K commercial showing an incredibly unattractive man preparing for a day on the beach. The Alta Vista commercial in which, thanks to Alta Vista, a geek has earned the devotion of, and a night with, Pamela Anderson (by rescuing her). The Pets.com commercial in which a guy sleeps happily on the floor while his dogs snore on the bed. Intelligent humour.

You’re in advertising—it’s your life’s work—and you’re reading this, thinking: “Why is she telling me this? I already know this.” Well, if everyone in advertising knows this, why are so many TV commercials so abysmally, depressingly bad?

Why are we fed a steady diet of Yuppies-With-Happy-Children driving SUVs to meet their Warm Best Friend/Smart Financial Advisor and invest their sizeable cash reserves so they’ll have plenty of money on which to retire and spend on their Adorable Grandchildren? Ugh. The warm fuzzies are anything but—they’re insultingly divorced from reality. And they’re not funny.

The only financial planning commercials I remember are those from Schwab, in which professional athletes explain the intricacies of investing. They’re funny. The car commercials I remember are from Nissan (Border Collie herds man sleeping in chair through city streets to Nissan showroom), those from Audi (because they’re beautiful and witty) and the innumerable witty Volkswagen spots.

Each year, when NABS Vancouver hosts the Cannes International Advertising Festival Winners’ Reel, the event sells out in hours. Because it’s entertaining. Those commercials are, for the most part, funny, intelligent, witty. They’re deemed the world’s best commercials, because they’re memorable and so are their products–no matter how obscure they seem. We remember the dancing penis commercial from an Australian Gay & Lesbian radio station, the chef-abuse spot for an Argentinean English school. Does anyone remember those that weren’t witty?

I would like to see a change in sensibility. I would like to see an end to this smug, dreadfully earnest, demographic-research-based celebration of presumed success. I couldn’t care less what Lindsay Wagner or Candace Bergen want me to buy. I want to see ‘real’ people in intelligent, mirth-inducing commercials. I want to not have to watch television with a book in my left hand and my right thumb glued to the mute button. I would like to see the bullshit obliterated, the noise turned down, the wit turned way, way up.

 

Off the Rocks: Studio B Productions Defrosts Yvon of the Yukon

yvonBlitz Magazine, September 2000

It is an average day in the Yukon Territory town of Upyermukluk. A bored 14 year-old is driving around on his snowmobile with his dog. The dog jumps off to pee. When he relieves himself on a mound of snow, it’s discovered that the mound is a block of ice encasing a 300 year-old man named Yvon. Yvon is a smelly, crude boob of a French explorer. An underpants-clad egotist who still plans to conquer the town in the name of the French king, and who is let loose on the town and its oddball citizenry.

This is the story of Yvon of the Yukon, a cartoon series created and produced by Vancouver’s Studio B Productions and premiering on YTV this month. This is also the story of how and why an animation studio makes the transition from service bureau to producer, and how an animated series gets sold.

Studio B was founded 12 years ago by Chris Bartleman and Blair Peters. The studio has worked for, and continues to work for, Nelvana, Walt Disney Television, Nickelodeon and CBS, as well as companies in the UK, Germany, France and China. Its roster now boasts 150 animators and it’s successful, but Bartleman says that the transition from service provider to producer was necessary.

“The business has changed. Animation is more popular than ever, but there’s not that much service work going on. Not that long ago, there was too much work and not enough people to do it. Then a couple of people demonstrated that they could look to Asia, and get good ratings for next to nothing. That somehow became the rule. Now the US market is dry, there have been lots of lay-offs in LA, and studios are struggling to keep their people busy.

“In order to survive, animators have to get into their own productions. But they have to go the co-production route because they can’t afford to make shows on their own. Five years ago, the network would pay 50% of your budget in a US sale. How it’s 10% max. If you want to make a show to sell to a US network for the Saturday morning market, you have to come up with that 90%, and that’s a lot of money. Plus, everybody knows that US sales are the key to worldwide sales. So things are going to turn around completely. I would say that in five years or less we’ll be paying the US broadcasters to air our programs.”

Bartleman believes that the Internet is still not a viable alternative for animation firms.

“There’s no model for making money in animation on the Internet, and people are still throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. There’s no money in it unless you’re a dot-com company listed on the stock exchange—people aren’t going to pay to download a cartoon. Some people are looking at corporate sponsorship of entire shows, the way it was at the beginning of television. But we decided to build on the reputation we’d acquired through doing service work and pitch our own shows to broadcasters.”

The idea for Yvon of the Yukon came up three years ago when its writers, Terry Klassen and Ian Corlett, brought the project to Peters and Bartleman. Everyone felt that it would be a sure-fire hit, the characters were designed, the series developed. In January, Studio B signed with YTV, then Alliance Atlantis Communications division AAC Kids. ‘Sounds easy enough. But it has been a time-consuming process involving lots of money and effort.

“It takes a long time to take a show from idea to on-air,” says Bartleman. “It took us longer because we had to build relationships with broadcasters, funding agencies and distribution companies. We had to start from square one, the way we’d started with service work.

“When you’re an animation studio doing service work, you get to know the production managers, then you grow from there until you eventually get to the top of the heap. So you’d think we’d have a head start and that we’d already know the decision-makers. In fact, you could do endless series work and the broadcasters won’t know that you’re the ones doing the work for the shows airing on their stations.”

Peters and Bartleman started building relationships by attending festivals and trade shows in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Banff. Meanwhile, three series were in development—Yvon, plus What About Mimi? which airs on Teletoon this fall, and The Myna Leagues, which has been picked up by CTV.

Bartleman and Peters also had an idea that made it possible to reduce the amount of funding they needed. They entered into a co-production deal with one of their suppliers—Shanghai’s Hong Ying Universal Animation.

“Hong Ying is a 34% partner in Yvon through doing 34% of the work as an investment,” explains Bartleman. “In television animation, all the in-betweening and colouring gets done in Asia anyway. We do the key drawings, but there are 20,000 drawings per every half-hour show and it’s too expensive to do it here. We’d hire Hong Ying to do the work anyway, so we said ‘you invest your time in the show, you become a partner, you share the back end and have your territories’. We made the co-production deal an extension of our regular business.”

yvon4

Studio B spent $40,000 on developing the show, then the cost of producing the 13-show series of half-hour episodes came to $5.2 million. Financing came via distribution advances against pre-sales, the co-production deal, Canadian and US sales, and grants from BC Film, Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Cable Production Fund. Alliance is responsible for international sales; Studio B kept control of Canada and the US and has played a large role in the marketing of Yvon, spending about $15,000. In the animation business, this is unusual.

“A lot of animators just do their thing and let the distributor handle marketing and promotions—they’re animators, not marketers,” explains Bartleman. “But Blair and I have done a lot of advertising work and we have a good sense of marketing, of what makes things interesting, of how to put on a good dog-and-pony show.

“If we’d produced a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, it would be different. But we created Yvon. It’s important to us that the show’s a hit and part of ensuring that is getting involved in marketing and promotion. We had to make the buzz go.”

They had a lot to work with. Yvon has 10 main characters, all unusual individuals with distinct personalities. Locations include the bingo hall, the town’s greasy spoon cafe, the jail, ‘The Tundra’. The town has a con man, a sexpot cop, an incompetent outdoorsman and a nerdy bureaucrat from the Ministry of National Malfeasance. Episodes have titles like ‘Call of the Mild’, ‘License to Smell’, ‘Fromage to Eternity’ and ‘An Affair to Dismember’.

yvon1

Yvon also has a double market category. It’s written so that 6-9 year-olds will think it’s hilarious, but parents will also get a kick out of it. So it will air in prime time. Although the two-tier appeal will undoubtedly help sales, that wasn’t the intention.

“Our priority was to make a funny, entertaining show which we liked and believed in,” continues Bartleman. “It was after the show was finished that we started thinking about outside influences. You have to love your product before you can focus on marketing.”

Yvon’s marketing began with the creation of an exhaustively comprehensive, leather-bound information package including a four-colour booklet with character outlines and interactions, episode synopses, colour scene plates, bios, press clippings etc. It was expensive, but it was worth the cost.

“They put together a fabulous, solid pitch on Yvon,” recalls Suzanne French, the former manager of co-production at YTV who is now VP of AAC Kids. “That tipped the scale with both YTV and Alliance. It showed how they approach execution and it gave them credibility. Few companies do demos, but B Plus provided an animated title sequence and recorded a song for it.

“Sometimes we get pitched on an animated property without being provided with visuals—just a written description. Some producers don’t know what their target market is, who the appropriate broadcasters are, who their international partners would be. This is their one chance to make a good impression and they just hope you’ll see through their bad presentation. But a bad presentation is not going to get the project to the right desk—past the gatekeepers who review submissions before they arrive at the decision-makers. Studio B’s presentation gave us confidence—it showed that they were good producers who would deliver on their promises.”

Studio B’s publicist, Ruth Atherley, feels that her clients’ attention to marketing and media relations is key to their success.

“They realize that animators have to promote themselves and their products. You can make the best cartoon ever, but it won’t matter if you don’t get the word out and get people to watch it.”

Atherley says that, until very recently, there wasn’t a lot of external marketing done by Studio B. Internally, Bartleman and Peters made sure that their staff stayed hyped about the show. Everyone was kept in the loop, there were parties for the crew, t-shirts were distributed. It wasn’t until the show was picked up by YTV and Alliance that external efforts began.

“We knew that YTV and AAC Kids have other projects to promote and we wanted to help them get the word out about Yvon,” continues Atherley. “So we created an e-mail campaign with three quick-time video clips taken from the show, as well as notices to tell people to watch a sneak preview that was airing on YTV in June. We had each Studio B employee commit to e-mailing these messages to 20 people, then I sent out another 400. And we had Yvon post cards printed and distributed all over Vancouver—in places like coffee shops. The idea was to get a grassroots movement going; to get people talking about Yvon.”

yvon3 yvon2

One of the bigger Yvon events was a media and industry party that Studio B hosted at a bar in Banff, during this year’s Banff Television Festival. It happened that YTV aired the sneak preview of Yvon in the middle of the festival. For the party, Yvon was frozen into a block of ice, banners and balloons were made, more post cards went out.

Atherley notes that the partners are also committed to, and keenly aware of the power of, media relations.

“Since the beginning of the development of Yvon, Blair and Chris have been talking to the Vancouver Sun and The Province, and they were included in a V.TV show on animation careers. They’re not expecting to be on the cover of Time, but they were as thrilled to have the North Shore News do an item on them as they were when the Wall Street Journal called [for comment on its article on the state of the animation industry]. And they went ahead with production on the show before their contracts were signed. They wanted to have something in hand—you can’t go to the media and say ‘We have a great animated show but we can’t show it to you’.

On Studio B’s web site (www.studiobproductions.com) there is, of course, a comprehensive section on Yvon—which also includes information on, and links to the sites of, YTV, Telefilm Canada, AAC Kids and Hong Ying. Trade print ads have been placed, and marketing-related gimmicks are in the works—things like compasses and glycerin soaps encasing Yvon. More parties are planned and, as a result of requests from people who saw the preview, an Yvon fan club has been created.

So the buzz is going and the network is thrilled (the results of the preview were such that YTV is talking about a second season). What remains is international sales, the job of Gail Rivett, VP Marketing at Alliance Atlantis Television.

“The international marketing is generally done by presenting the products at major television trade shows—the big one is Mipcom/Mipcom Junior at Cannes next month. Yvon is one of the premier products for AAC Kids, so the marketing budget assigned to it is top-tier. We’ll have a very large booth complete with meeting rooms, and our team of salespeople who will meet one-on-one with the buyers.

“We’ll also have sales materials—a four-colour, four-panel pocketed brochure. We’ll give away things that people will want to keep and use, like the soaps. The materials required to market these shows have to be very high-end, representative and fun.

“This is a fast-paced business, the international kids market is very competitive and the buyers are being pitched by dozens of shows a day. These meetings are not 30 minutes long, and we need to make the best impression possible in the fastest way. So we’ll also have a high-end sales trailer that will tell them everything they need to know—but not too much. Once they’ve seen that, they’ll make the decision as to whether or not to go to the next step of viewing the episodes, then purchasing the series.

Rivett’s main markets are the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany, to which she’ll sell dubbed shows at prices set by audience numbers in each country.

“The great thing about animation is that it travels well. And we’re hoping that Yvon is creative enough, interesting enough and different enough that it sells itself. We need those marketing materials, and we’ll have the media relations accomplished prior to Mipcom, but we don’t have to do much spin on this show. The one-liner is enough—‘An adventurer gets peed on by a husky and gets set free’. That’s funny.”

Once the show is sold, Rivett has the required confidence that Studio B can deliver. “The party at Banff on the night of the YTV premier was very innovative—something we don’t often see. And when I saw the promotional package that Studio B produced, and saw that all the elements were there in terms of story line and character development, we felt that the studio could deliver what we need to pass on to broadcasters. Anybody who comes to us with a creative, well-organized approach like that is more impressive. We’re only as good as the materials and images the producers provide, so it makes for a better strategy if animators also think of the marketing aspect.

“The studio has provided us with what we need for a marketing campaign,” continues Rivett. “After we sell it, we can provide broadcasters with the same products so they can create market-by-market promotions on their own channels. So it’s important for us to have some indication of what we’re going to get out of the studio. Because if you deliver bad master tapes or images to broadcasters, you’re sunk. They’ll remember that more than your great trailer.

“AAC Kids was launched a year ago, and Yvon is one of the true examples of what’s come out of its development cycle. Development cycles, especially in animation, are very long. Many shows look great at first but often, by the time they’re ready, something else has come out that blows them out of the water. Or the genre has gone out of fashion—like sci-fi. Sometimes, in the interim, the stations have started producing their own shows so your clients become your competition. But Yvon of the Yukon is fresh and funny; it has great animation and story lines. We’re pretty pleased about launching it.”

Gretzky, Tylenol and the Real Spin City

gretzy1Blitz Magazine, November 1999

Watching the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease riddle Michael J. Fox as he testified before the US Congress recently, I wondered if Wayne Gretzky was also watching, and whether he felt horrified or mortified.

Gretzky, as you know, attached himself to a disease—osteoarthritis. He doesn’t have it; he’s never even been tested for it. He does have some pain, which (duh) he acknowledges as being the result of a lifetime spent playing a violent contact sport.

I don’t know how Fox’s 1998 announcement of his affliction affected Spin City’s ratings, but my theory is that it inspired a Johnson & Johnson spin doctor. That this person saw the sincere (and justified) outpouring of affection and concern for Fox and thought: ‘Hey! Gretzky’s a famous, popular, polite Canadian! A renowned athlete! He’s gotta’ be in some kind of  pain! We’ll tell the media he’s got arthritis! We’ll connect it to the non-profit sector! Sales of Tylenol will soar!’

On September 14th, this appeared, care of Canadian Press, in the Vancouver Sun: ‘The disease that affects more than four million Canadians has hit one of the country’s greats: Wayne Gretzy, recently retired hockey hero, seems to be suffering from arthritis.”

On the 15th, the item was on the front page of the Globe & Mail.

On the 16th, the TV commercials began. Interview format, Wayne Gretzky claiming to use Tylenol to treat the symptoms of a disease which he does not have.

Well, it blew up in the company’s face, with the media crying foul and Gretzky back-pedaling at slap-shot speed, telling the National Post that he often uses paying gigs to promote worthy causes, and claiming to be the victim of a newspaper war.

But Gretzky ain’t Bambi, and I doubt that it’s coincidence that the Tylenol/arthritis thing, the announcement of his new National Post column (yeah, right), the naming of an Edmonton highway after him etc., coincided with the launch of his clothing line at The Bay.

All of this got me thinking that Gretzky’s PR people forgot a crucial rule: Never make a journalist look foolish. There isn’t a journalist alive who hasn’t been duped–who’s been too busy, or too lazy, or too ambitious, or too short of time to check a fact. Who has printed information from a press release, or the newswire, without stopping to question the information. Who has then found himself with egg on his face.

‘Thing is, burned journalists have terrific memories. And the next time they receive information from that guilty PR firm, account executive or client, they will remember. And toss it aside. Or fact-check it until the subject screams for mercy.

The moral of this Gretzky story, then, is that unscrupulous, untruthful PR campaigns benefit no one, demean all involved and, in the long run, do nothing but damage.

 

The BC Film Commission: Location, Location, Location

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was rare for a Hollywood producer to consider British Columbia when choosing locations. If they wanted a mountain, a bear, a Mountie, a Mountie on a bear on a mountain, only then BC was the obvious choice. A few well-known films were made here—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge. The skill was here; Canadian broadcasting and film talent has always had an excellent reputation. But, by 1975, although there was a lot of television production going on, BC had gone five years without seeing a complete Hollywood feature shot here and the province’s craftsmen were leaving to work elsewhere. Finally, in 1978, the Social Credit government stepped in and created the British Columbia Film Commission.

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With that came people who were actively marketing BC as a location. By the end of that year, BC went from having no business to enjoying production spending of $38 million. In 1979, it was $55 million. Producers, directors and production designers started to talk to their peers about BC, and there were people here following up. This meant cold-calling producers who, often, had to consult a map to find Vancouver. It was sometimes a tough sell, but the commission staff concentrated on building relationships and providing ever-better service.

While the cost of shooting in Los Angeles continued to escalate, BC was enjoying watershed moments. There was Year of Rambo (1979). 21 Jump Street showed producers that you could happily shoot an episodic series here. Then came MacGyver, and Wise Guy. In 1987, after the provincial government made a substantial investment to up-grade the Bridge Studios, Stephen J. Cannell and Paul Bronfman teamed up to build Lions Gate Studios (now North Shore Studios). The list of hit features continued to grow. The Canadian dollar stayed low, the tax advantages piled up.

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So has the work. In 1998, 28 features, 26 TV series, 15 animation projects, 59 documentaries and 43 MOWs, mini-series and pilots were produced in BC, for a total value of $808 million (CAD). In 1999, there were 54 features, 30 TV series, 6 animated projects, 48 documentaries and 60 MOWs, mini-series and pilots, for a total value of $1.7 billion. That doesn’t include the $500 million non-theatrical ‘broadcaster bucks’ and television commercial expenditures. And conservative estimates place the spin-off economic impact at $3 billion.

The BC Film Commission (BCFC) is a branch of the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism & Culture and relies on the government for all of its funds. It employs just 10 people and has seen its budget regularly slashed in recent years, to the point where it currently operates on a stunningly low annual budget of $875,000. (This, while Montreal just received a $300,000. injection to its promotional budget alone.)

The BCFC mandate is to market, promote and facilitate film and television production in BC, and to market the services of BC production, post-product and ancillary service companies to the international film and television industry. It has four tasks: international marketing, location scouting, location services and community relations.

These days, the marketing function is restricted, to say the least. “Seven years ago, I had a $250,000 print advertising budget,” says marketing manager Alice To. “It’s now $50,000, including creative. We’ve gone from placing 45 ads a year to placing five. Those five are saved for when there’s a BC production that needs to be congratulated in the trade press. Now, we don’t have campaigns, we have reminders. We stand out by using illustrations—other film commissions run location shots. We used to advertise to the European and Asian markets, we used to publish a newsletter for schools and libraries, and we used to do a lot of media relations. But we don’t have the resources for that any more.”

The commission used to have an advertising agency (Campaign Communications, now Saatchi & Saatchi). It also used to host the extremely successful Friends of BC reception in Los Angeles—a party to thank people for filming in BC. The commission still goes to Cannes and is hosting a Business in BC conference in London this year, but the once all-important trade shows are now also a thing of the past.

“We used to do Location EXPO,” continues To. “You’d have all the film commissions under one roof and everyone competed to attract people to their jurisdictions—we’d pass out BC apples, water, salmon. And we used to exhibit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival. Now we don’t do that, not so much because of budget cuts, but because people aren’t interested in trade shows any more. They know about the commissions and they can get the information they need off the Internet.”

For the past two years, the BCFC has had a very effective web site (www.bcfilmcommission.com). It’s strictly for information dissemination and doesn’t carry advertising, but it is well-visited to the point of the occasional crash. On it, visitors find film lists, statistics, quick facts, news items, maps and information on customs, taxes, unions, equipment rental, studios and services.

To, who compares her job to doing the limbo under an ever-lower budget bar, maintains a large photo library and has managed to produce excellent location brochures showing various BC locations—not just deer in the woods, but alleyways, warehouses, docks, residential areas. There’s the occasional marketing project with BC Film (the non-profit society responsible for marketing completed made-in-BC projects) and, twice a year, the commission’s director, location and production services managers go down to Los Angeles to meet with film industry executives and engage in some good, old-fashioned product touting.

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The product is a region which has evolved from being a location to being a production centre. BC’s craftspeople are as good as, if not better, than those anywhere else in the world. We have 67 state-of-the-art sound stages, the best post-production facilities in the business, and we’re capable of having 35 A-list crews working simultaneously. All facilities and amenities are here; producers don’t have to bring anything with them. BC has architectural diversity, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity (it has nine of the globe’s 12 climates, lacking only arctic, tropic and sub-tropic).

“We used to just market locations, now we market Vancouver as a production centre,” says acting BCFC director Mark DesRochers. “We have the complete package now—the pitch to the popcorn. People have put a lot of money back into the business here, so everything’s up to date and the quality of the facilities here has been well attested to by the most grizzled of Hollywood veterans.”

But if there’s no marketing budget, no events budget and no media relations budget, how has the BC Film Commission succeeded?

Strategy, service and more service.

“The second part of our mandate—location scouting—can be challenging,” continues DesRochers. “If someone needs the Texas panhandle, we’ve got a problem. But maybe we can get that script rewritten for Montana. Double Jeopardy was originally supposed to take place in Boston. Then Bruce Beresford thought ‘Why am I trying to cheat this for Boston, when I can rewrite it to take place in the Pacific Northwest?’

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“We have to get in at the contract-signing stage. After that, there’s not much we can do to change their minds. So we look at the trades, track production, call people up. The key is to get producers to think of BC first. A producer will send a script to a dozen locations and his concerns are budget and what a location offers. They come up here and I show them around and say, ‘We can do it for this much here and it’s going to look good. But then I may take them to the Okanagan and show them the perfect location for the script and say ‘If we do it here, for this much, it will look fabulous’. Then they’ll go back and fight for that location. It may cost them a little more to go up to the Okanagan, but they’re still saving money by filming in BC, and they don’t have to compromise on the creative side.

“Also, since 1995, we’ve had the Regional Film Commission of BC, a network of regional film offices that helps us give people exactly the location they want. Production budgets are shrinking and it’s expensive to send location scouts everywhere, especially in a region the size of BC.

“We know how thin the margins are on these shows and we have to service that margin. If a producer needs a mountain and he can get great shots on Grouse Mountain, we’re not going to have him drag his crew over to Mount Robson. If he wants the Queen Charlotte Islands and we know he can’t afford it, we’ll find the alternative.

“We learned a long time ago to never bullshit the customer. If someone needs tundra and musk ox, I’m going to tell we don’t have it. We don’t want to screw up or disappoint our customers, because some of our customers are people who would go out of their way to tell their friends what a bunch of wankers we are. If you market yourselves as being something, that’s what you have to deliver.”

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Once a project has been landed, the third part of the BCFC’s job— location services—kicks in. The BCFC takes a hands-on approach, walking producers through the hoops and ladders of immigration, customs, tax credits, Canadian content issues and union agreements.

The latter, as has been well publicized, used to be a major bugaboo. “People want to come here and make movies, not learn labour law,” explains DesRochers. “There was a time when people considered the possibility of union problems if they came to BC. That may or may not have cost us business—and it did get to the point where the whole thing could have gone down the toilet. But out of that came the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. And we did. Now, unlike any other jurisdiction in North America, all of the unions and guilds have long-term agreements with the employers, and the union agreements are much more straightforward than they used to be. We now have labour peace.”

More recently, there was the issue of unrest among members of the Los Angeles film industry, many of whom were furious at the amount of business coming up here.

“This is a cyclical business, and the growth in production in LA has been more rampant than any other place on the planet,” says DesRochers. “But if there are impracticalities which cost money, and producers want to make a profit, they’ll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Anyway, we haven’t heard much from them lately—the guy leading the charge had to resign to go work on a feature in Toronto.”

Delivering that bigger bang also means competing with 260 other North American film commissions—and with Toronto, Vancouver’s main competitor, whose film commission also gets way more support from its provincial government. Toronto also has location advantages that BC doesn’t have.

“The competition has to do with location-driven pictures,” explains DesRochers. “Toronto is always on the producers’ shopping lists. If you want that eastern city look—if you want New York, Toronto is more logical. But there’s the weather to consider. And we are chameleons.”

The BCFC’s final mandate component is community relations. This area is absolutely essential, given that, not too long ago, the goodwill and hospitality of British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular—was starting to run a little low.

“Vancouverites are easy to get along with, considering the amount of production going on in a relatively small inner city,” remarks DesRochers. “But we had to start spending more time making sure the neighbours were not going to lynch the next show. Now, the municipal and city fathers are educated on what all of this filming means to the economy. People get advance letters, friendly production people knock on their doors and answer questions. It may just be a courtesy or—if you want to land a helicopter on someone’s street at 2:00 a.m.—it may be crucial.

“Like any business, once you’ve done your marketing and landed the business, your future success lies in how efficient you are at servicing that business. We have a multi-tiered client base and we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused.”

In 1995, the BCFC needed someone to deal only with community relations. It didn’t have the money to pay that salary, so it went to those with a vested interest—lawyers, accountants, post-production facilities, unions etc., and had them each chip in $4000. to pay 75% of the salary for a community relations person, something which most film centres don’t have.

The BCFC’s community affairs manager, Gordon Hardwick, is responsible for working with production companies and helping them deal with municipal administrators, Crown corporations and the private sector—helping them cut the red tape.

“I’m currently trying to organize municipal administrators to discuss ways of standardizing things,” he says. “The Greater Vancouver Regional District has 21 municipalities, all with different application and permit processes. Each year, filmmakers make 1,250 applications to the City of Vancouver, which has 400 files open at any one time. So things can become quite complex.”

Hardwick is also working on a marketing plan aimed at raising public awareness of the industry’s fiscal benefits.

“The film community supports a lot of charitable and service organizations, and there are many good-news stories to be told. We have a very low complaint level, but sometimes people get this idea that they’re being exploited by Big American Film Companies. Once they realize that a lot of the productions are Canadian, and that the guy next door makes his living this way, they understand. So the goal of the marketing plan will be to get the good news stories and the economic information out on as localized a level as possible.

“My job is to find ways to accommodate everyone and communicate with businesses and residents so that they can plan their lives around what’s going to be happening. Without that communication, communities would get fed up with the road blocks and noise and racing vehicles and say ‘forget it’. That’s what happened in some communities in the Los Angeles basin, which simply no longer allowing filming. Collectively, our locations are a resource that needs to be managed, with an eye to preservation for the future, just as the fishery or forestry resource does. This is a resource that needs to be both promoted and protected.

“The film industry here grew as a location-based industry—it was never about studios and back lots. We’ve always needed public support and understanding and the willingness to accept inconvenience once in a while. This industry employs 25,000 people—you don’t want it to go away just because it occasionally blocks your driveway.”

Perhaps the human element complicates things more than in this industry than in other sectors. But the other key to the BC Film Commission’s success is that it has been very good at forging solid, long-lasting relationships.

“We’ve developed a great rapport with the decision-makers in this industry,” says DesRochers. “When I go down to LA, I meet with people and find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We stay abreast of their desires and wishes and respond quickly. People there know we’re open to suggestions and that we’re committed to delivering the goods. That confidence is better than any advertising you could run.

“This is show business—a mix of creativity and fiscal responsibility. You can’t separate money from the other benefits. You can’t put a dollar value on knowing that you’re going to get the product you want, on time and on budget. And those relationships may save money in the long run, even if the up-front cost is a little higher. So you’ll get producers who come here again and again, no matter what company they’re working for.

“Sure, there’s the exchange rate and the tax advantages, but it’s also the people. Producers know they can depend on our people. We’ve earned the respect of our community on both sides of the border—from studio guys, to unions, to composers, to the guys renting cell phones. We’ve done a good job in forging relationships and keeping those warm and fuzzy feelings about us.”

 

On Dicks & Democracy

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Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”

“Correct.”

“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”

“Immaterial.”

“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”

“Forthright.”

“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.


 

On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007

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The year of BC news-viewers’ discontent has begun, and in the most appalling fashion. It was yesterday that the first trial of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton began. We had been duly warned: Global began to advertise its up-coming coverage a week ago. Now, it has become clear that the news-viewing public will be forced to watch the media engage in the agonizing process of sucking every ounce of blood from this already-bloody story.

Pickton, as you know, is accused of killing 26 women, whom he lured from the Vancouver’s skid row to his suburban pig farm. He is now on trial for six of those murders. A cursory view of CTV showed that its coverage was in pretty good taste. Global was a different animal altogether, with anchor Deb Hope using her nauseating ‘there, there’ voice to repeatedly warn squeamish viewers to use their discretion, following which no fewer than five reporters filed from the courthouse.

Every available family member was tagged for comment, a diagram of the courthouse was shown and explained, the judge was profiled, the Crown prosecutor and lead defense lawyer were profiled, the victims were profiled. The biggest guffaw was elicited by an interview with a child psychologist who advised how to counsel parents on how to help their children deal with this coverage—although I noted that he did not advise turning the TV off.

We all know about the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ mantra. We’re used to it, which is why we’re all so desensitized to the carnage we watch on the news every day. But so much has been said about ‘thinking outside the box’, that one would think that news organizations might pick up on that. They haven’t. No news organization seems to want to dare to step outside of said box and make changes so that their news delivery is more dignified and professional. Instead of wanting to simply inform and enlighten, they want to continue to pile it on, feeding the most base and prurient thoughts to be mined from the minds of viewers.

Does this help society in any way? Not a whit. In fact, I would suggest that it contributes to stress, anxiety, negativity, fear, callousness, even crime. Not everyone watching these stories is rational, intelligent and strong enough to listen to this crap without being influenced by it. Indeed, perhaps Robert Pickton is one of those people.